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Mission Impala

As a South Beach resident, I know how it goes: The old hotels and storefronts on a major strip -- Ocean Drive, say -- are renovated. Rents skyrocket, forcing out the kosher butchers, the shoe repair shops, the family-run drugstores and bodegas that have been there for eons, and bringing in chic boutiques, clubs, cafes (businesses, incidentally, that are about as stable as the San Andreas Fault). But inevitably nostalgia gives way to curiosity. We check out the new arrivals, like them, and come back for more. Until the tourists discover what's transpiring, at which point the entire process has recommenced a few blocks away, and we move on. Ocean Drive. Washington Avenue. Espanola Way. Lincoln Road.

The irony of our double-standard -- sadness at the loss of an area's disappearing past coupled with self-indulgent pleasure at its dynamic renaissance -- is inescapable. Perhaps I'm especially sensitive to it because it's my job to be the Ponce de Leon of dining, constantly seeking the young and the new. (On the other side, perhaps it relates to having been bounced out of my first apartment by a bogus condo-conversion deal followed by a $300-a-month rent hike.)

The latest stretch to fall under the redevelopers greedy gaze is Collins Avenue, that bastion of residence hotels and shadowy street corners. Buildings are being subjected to complete redos, not simple facelifts. The flashy first-floor eateries are moving in. I was happy to see that one of them, Cafe Impala, seems to be geared toward residents with gourmet tastes and slightly less lofty budgets. The breakfast menu, for instance, features delightful preparations such as scrambled tofu with wild mushrooms and onions, buttermilk biscuits with mascarpone and strawberries, and raisin-pecan French toast. Lunches highlight sandwiches and salads, including a charred eggplant caviar with Gruyare on rosemary focaccia, and basil-Parmesan chicken on sun-dried tomato bread.

A Mediterranean antipasto table, easily the star attraction, is available from lunch until the restaurant's midnight closing -- a great option for the Beach's vegetarians. The kitchen comes up with more than a dozen chilled salads, very few of which utilize meat, displaying them in bowls a la Manhattan take-out grocers. But this is no weigh-by-the-pound or serve-it-yourself kind of deal. Press your nose against the glass all you want, but someone behind the counter will dish up any salad in the singular sense for $3.50 (three items cost $8, five runs to $12) and your waiter will deliver it. The best deal is the all-you-can-eat ($16), especially when the layout includes rich foie gras served with rounds of French bread, as it did the night we dined. We tried every one of the endless variety, and the only drawback we encountered was the difficulty in keeping the salads, especially those that featured pasta, separate from one another.

A quick rundown: Orecchiette was bland and uninspiring despite an abundance of portobello and shiitake mushrooms, and a fusilli salad had no noticeable attributes. Garlicky orzo spiked with tomatoes and red and green peppers had a fresher appeal, but a Parmesan-enhanced linguine took top pasta honors. We also enjoyed a beautifully textured wild rice salad with a variety of dried fruit -- mainly apricots -- and nuts. Both roasted sweet potato spears with maple-sesame dressing and white potato wedges with salty kalamata olives were hearty and filling. Drizzled with honey, a scoop of mashed sweet potatoes and carrots was a smooth variation on that theme, and chewy parsnip rounds spiced with dill rounded out our root choices. French lentil salad was fabulous, the al dente legumes tossed with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, and a red wine vinaigrette. Zucchini, eggplant, and yellow squash were grilled and spiced up with balsamic vinegar. In another salad, corn was grilled, shaved from the cob, and mixed with perfectly prepared black beans, lime, and cilantro.

If the antipasto table satisfies all cravings for fresh vegetables, it will also have to suffice for appetizers; aside from soup, or a salad of baby mixed greens, no starters are offered. Parmesan potato leek soup was particularly tasty, lumpy with potato and flavorful with ample threads of leek. The other option, a vegetarian soup of the day, wasn't nearly its equal: -- creamless puree of (mainly) carrots, with some textural help from other vegetables, it lacked heart, sort of like chicken soup made without a chicken.

Chicken pot pie was served piping hot in a crock. Crowned with a buttermilk crust so light it floated like foam on a wave, the creamy filling was stocked with onions, peas, potatoes, carrots, celery, and boneless breast meat. Though it was accompanied by a wilted green salad that looked as though it had been unintentionally subjected to a heat lamp, the pie was certainly a keeper. Unfortunately, our appetites for it will have to keep until autumn; apparently pot pie is a seasonal item, inappropriate for the summer months. (Like tourists.)

Grilled tuna steak with stir-fried vegetables and wasabi mayo was healthy in preparation as well as size. Cross-hatched with grill marks, the succulent fresh fish retained a lovely, light smoky flavor that easily outshone its side dishes -- a ho-hum mix of shredded cabbage, onions, snow peas, carrots, and red pepper, and an overcooked pile of saffron-hued rice. The dab or two of wasabi mayonnaise hardly registered.

Similarly, overly oily and burnt portobello mushrooms and Japanese eggplant were not worthy of the entree with which they were paired, potato-wrapped salmon. But the fillet itself was as thick as my wrist, dense, meaty, flaky, juicy. A thin wrapping of potatoes admirably prevented the loss of moisture, while two sauces -- a barely there leek and a more suitable red wine -- accented the salmon.

Noodles find their way onto the main menu with three dried-pasta standbys augmented by nightly specials. We tried one of the menu entries, a dozen red pepper ravioli filled with smoked mozzarella. The very smoky cheese filling was countered somewhat by a sweet tomato concasse shot through with basil. Unlike most orders of ravioli, which tend to be skimpy, this dish satisfied enormously.

Dessert wasn't an all-around success, given that the mango-polenta souffle we'd ordered at the beginning of the meal (it requires 30 minutes of preparation time) arrived while we were still eating dinner. The kitchen took it back, watched it fall, then prepared a new one -- another 30 minutes. Sadly, it wasn't worth the wait. The polenta made the eggy confection too grainy, and a vanilla sauce tasted more like hot half-and-half.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Opened at the first of the year under partners Ron Tolson, Frank Zimbaro, and chef Lee Klein, the cafe seemed to be hitting its stride, when Klein (who is also the restaurant critic for Ocean Drive magazine -- an odd little conflict of interest) left the restaurant at the end of April. Tolson says the split was amicable and that he and Zimbaro are getting by fine while they interview candidates to replace Klein. Between them the two have almost four decades of food-management experience, so I'm keeping the Impala on my hot list -- at least until the tourists get wind of it.

Side Dish
The only thing I've never loved about Oggi Cafe is its postage-stamp size, which makes it impossible to seat large parties -- or even small ones, for that matter -- without an interminable wait. Now that problem has been unexpectedly solved. My favorite reason to venture forth on the 79th Street Causeway recently opened a sister restaurant on another causeway, the Venetian. The 65-seat Oggi's by the Bay has been heating up the mezzanine level in the Costa Brava Yacht Club, a condominium high-rise at 11 Island Ave. They've even got a banquet room for large parties. An unlikely spot, yes. But the same great Oggi menu. Without the wait. For more information, call 532-3332.


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